Argent Kvasnikoff wants young Alaska Native people to embrace their culture – “whatever that culture means to them,” he emphasized. An artist based in Ninilchik, Alaska, Argent’s exhibit, “Qena Sint’isis,” will run April 7 through May 29 at the Pratt Museum in Homer, Alaska. The multimedia exhibit is a visual representation of the Dena’ina language through various forms, including beadwork, ceramics, paint and ink. The title is a pairing of the Dena’ina word “qena,” which means “word,” and the English word “synthesis,” written as a phonetic approximation through the lens of the Dena’ina alphabet.
Argent never set out to become an artist. He studied linguistics in college in Vancouver, Canada, “but it wasn’t clicking,” he said. “I had liked art from a young age, and while I was in college, I got a job as a student advisor and began putting together activities centered on cultural outreach.” Those activities led to involvement with the local art scene and gallery system, and courses in art history further piqued his interest, particularly the study of the role of visual arts in social movements.
After returning in 2010 to Alaska, Argent worked for several years at the Ninilchik Traditional Council, the governing organization of the Ninilchik Village Tribe. It was there that he began creating and administering social arts initiatives and events in rural areas of the Kenai Peninsula, and participated in several indigenous cultural projects. He also began studying pre-contact Dena’ina language.
“Art only recently became ‘the thing I’m doing,’” Argent said. “I’m not a craftsperson; I have probably the most unsteady hand of anyone in the world. What I’m interested in is taking some of the themes that reflect my understanding of cultural evidence – in this case, the Dena’ina language – and meshing them with my personal experience.”
The goals of Qena Sint’isis, as described by the Pratt Museum, are to “share information about the Dena’ina language using visual elements, to share information about traditional Dena’ina culture, and to encourage people to explore language through the lens of a different writing system in order to experience how cultural information can be transformed in front of their eyes.”
At the core of the exhibit are 44 new symbols that correlate to the Dena’ina alphabet. The symbols, Argent said, are based on familial and tribal histories and historical records, which he developed over a three-month period.
Argent is related to CIRI through his parents, Marla and Jack Kvasnikoff Jr., both of whom have mixed Dena’ina/Alutiiq ancestry and hail from the Ninilchik tribe. Though he’s an avid traveler and has lived elsewhere, Argent is happy to call Ninilchik home. “I have family nearby and I know the people here, and they’ve been really supportive,” he said. “I’ve applied to museums in the Lower 48 and outside the country as well, but for now, I’m really happy to see what I can do from here.”
Qena Sint’isis is funded in part through a Heritage Project Grant from The CIRI Foundation (TCF). Heritage Project Grant funding is available to support projects that affect and/or involve Alaska Native beneficiaries of CIRI and further the heritage goals of TCF, such as enhancing the understanding and appreciation of Alaska Native history; encouraging contemporary Alaska Native tradition bearers in pursuit of their works; and fostering the identification, preservation, curation and interpretation of traditional and contemporary Alaska Native cultural resource materials.
Argent has received pushback about the project from a few individuals who feel “it’s not an authentic venture,” he said. “The thing is, Alaska Natives, and particularly young Alaska Natives, don’t have to let other people tell them what their culture is.”
“I had a lot of guilt for a long time,” Argent admitted. “When I was in college, I was president of the student union and involved with First People initiatives. I would be asked by ‘experts’ what kind of traditional songs I listened to, and for me, growing up, that was pop music. I was looked at as strange and with pity. Young people need to be assured that others don’t get to dictate their traditions. If you’re really interested in preserving culture, as an indigenous person, be the best person you can be.”
Qena Sint’isis will be on exhibit at the Pratt Museum from April 7 through May 29. For information, visit www.prattmuseum.org. For more information on Argent Kvasnikoff and his work, visit www.argentkvasnikoff.com.